ANDREA PLATE WRITES – The early reviews are in: Amazon Prime’s “Homecoming” series is a hit. The story-line, about a counselor helping veterans returning home transition to civilian life, is suspenseful. It’s gritty and “noir.” It’s a psychological thriller. And it features a cinematic superstar, Julia Roberts, who proves that, rather than slumming it on TV, she’s gentrifying the small screen scene.
Trouble is, having watched the first three episodes, I came away annoyed. And mad. For fourteen-and-a-half years, I worked full time as a social worker at the West Los Angeles Department of Veterans Affairs, doing just what Heidi tries to do— assist veterans back from Iraq and Afghanistan to solve problems related to mental health, homelessness, and minimal social support. Heidi is a social worker, case worker, counselor, whatever—depending on which ad or review you read. I am a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) in the state of California.
Herewith, five things I hate about “Homecoming:”
- The glorified lead character, Heidi Bergman. Sounds like a Jewish name. (Why doesn’t anyone care about a non-Jewish actor starring as a Jew?). Played by Roberts, she’s tall, slim and glamorous—a welcome change, perhaps, from Tyne Daly’s Maxine Gray, the tireless social worker/mother of judge Amy Brenneman on the 1999-2005 TV series “Judging Amy.” Or Whoopi Goldberg, who guest-starred on “Law and Order” as a government social worker so stressed and taxed that she falsifies records to cover up the tragic loss of a child’s life. But in “Homecoming,” Roberts, as Bergman, strains credulity; she looks all too fabulous all the time. Her mascara never runs. She never looks tired. And she has a spacious office few real-life social workers could hope to occupy. (At the VA, I occupied a converted cart room, a onetime Xerox room– both without windows and ventilation– and a dark, basement warren with wall rats)
- The portrait of a female workaholic: Shame! It’s the Me Too era, and here we have a throwback to that timeworn cliché of Woman as Workplace Warrior. Remember Faye Dunaway in the movie “Network,” orgasming while obsessing over TV ratings? Poor Heidi Bergman! She can’t stop obsessing about the job. She neglects her boyfriend (and doesn’t seem to want sex). She can’t maintain a decent life, carry on a career and chew gum at the same time. What’s more, she goes out of her scope of practice. Neither she nor her boss are allowed to juggle patients’ medications– as they continually do. Only an MD or psychiatrist is licensed to do so, in any state!
- The bad practice: Maintain patient/client boundaries!! That’s one ofthe cardinal rules of therapeutic work. Don’t get enmeshed, or overly-involved, with patients. Don’t self-disclose much. (But Heidi’s handsome patient gets her to dish about boyfriends, romantic road trips, etc.). Avoid emotional displays like long, lingering smiles which might seem harmless but could suggest intimacy to an overly needy patient. So drop the megawatt smile, Ms. Roberts. Observe the patient as he eyes your aquarium; don’t stand close beside him, bantering about the fine points of raising fish.
- Heidi’s listening skills: They’re not good enough. “Active listening” is one of the first lessons in social work school. What it means: Fully concentrating on what the patient says instead of passively ‘hearing’ or receiving messages, while showing no response. Instead, we are taught, repeat and re-frame what the patient says. Show that you understand and care. Above all, focus!! Do not answer the phone while in session—which is what Heidi does—at the beck and call of her boss!
- The sexist stereotypes: Would any self-respecting therapist tolerate Heidi’s boss, Colin Belfast? Played all too well by Bobby Cannavale, he’s obnoxious, loud, domineering, and obviously focused solely on the bottom-line (which is what, exactly? Profit? Accountability, to whom)? “Just get the stats,” he barks, dismissing Heidi’s worries about humane treatment, urging her instead to get on with the [seemingly] dirty work (which is what, exactly? Must we stay tuned to have any idea?). Like super- agent “Ari” (Jeremy Piven) in the now defunct HBO series “Entourage,” Colin’s all business and no family, even at his kid’s birthday party. Can’t men be decent fathers and husbands while pursuing careers?
“Homecoming” may think it’s art imitating life. But real-world veterans do indeed suffer real problems when they come home— drug abuse, suicidality, PTSD, homelessness—why dress up their shocking, dramatic stories in some weird, conspiratorial tale?
I say, “Tell it like it is.” Or, as they say at the VA: “You can’t make this stuff up.” Truth is stranger than fiction. Trust me.
ANDREA PLATE is an instructor at LMU, teaching a course on ‘Gender and the Military’. Her master’s degree in social policy/social work is from UCLA. Her book on returning soldiers and the Veterans Administration – ‘Madness: My Life on the Frontlines of the VA’ – will be published next year by Asia Media Press